His rookie season is finally over, so it’s safe to expose this dirty little secret: Grant Hill knows only one song on the piano.
It’s true. Remember the David Letterman gig? When Hill stunned the national audience, sitting down with the band, cranking out a tune, “Tender Love,” as if he were some globe- trotting lounge act with a million-song repertoire? Uh-uh. That was it. His “Chopsticks.” He learned it back at Duke
— Christian Laettner taught it to him on a little keyboard — and he has been playing it since.
“That,” Hill says, over lunch at the Palace Grille, “was the one thing I would take back if I could. Now piano teachers call me up, and people who make instruments call me up, and every time I go to a high school to speak, they always have a piano and they ask me for a song.”
What do you do?
“I play that one again.’
And what if they want more?
“I tell them, ‘No, no, that’s enough.’ “
Ah, well. If that’s the worst to come out of 1994-95, Grant Hill is doing even better than we thought. Personally, I thought he tried to do too much his freshman season. Said yes too often. But after 82 games, a barrel full of commercials, appearances on everything from Letterman to the ESPYs, a GQ cover, a Time feature, companies banging on his door, charities faxing their requests — after all that, even though the Pistons missed the playoffs, the expectations for Hill are still enormous.
Here’s what I expect: I expect him to collapse.
“I hit the wall twice this season,” he admits. “The first time in December, and the second time just after the All-Star break. You know you hit the wall when, suddenly, you have no energy whatsoever. You don’t even know how you get up and down the court. All you want to do — even during the game
— is sleep.”
Hill takes a bite of his cheese steak and laughs. He remains unfailingly polite, even though the team lost nearly twice as many games as it won this season and is about to lose its coach, and Hill personally was interviewed more often than Newt Gingrich. He admits the NBA is not like college. For one thing, all the losing. For another, the fun.
“In college, you’re living with the other students. You’re taking classes with them, eating with them, you’re part of the environment.”
In the NBA, you stand out from the environment. Hill, famous as he was, fought this all year long. He kept the same phone number — “everyone and his mother has it now” — and he admits to falling prey to people who would call his hotel room, saying they made clothes for other NBA players. Because he likes clothes, he’d invite them up — only to learn they know nothing about clothes.
In time, he learned to use an alias. He also learned about autograph mobs, and endless small-town radio stations — “Can I have five minutes, Grant? Testing, one-two . . . ” — and, yes, even groupies.
“To be honest, it wasn’t what they say it is. There haven’t been models waiting outside hotels to meet me.
“Besides, it’s very hard to know whom to trust. . . . I know there are a lot of good people out there, but it’s hard to decipher who’s good and who’s not.”
Hill is good. He’s good at basketball, he’s good at public relations, he’s good at staying sane. He has just completed the most celebrated opening year since Magic Johnson in 1979-80. And even Magic wasn’t on the cover of GQ as
“The Savior of Sports.”
“Did you feel manipulated this year?” I ask.
“To a certain degree. But then wasn’t it Marx who said, ‘Whenever you work for someone, you’re going to be exploited?’ “
Kids at home — did you catch that? He just quoted Marx.
Karl, not Groucho.
It’s that sort of thing that makes everyone drool over Hill. Intellectuals cheer him, and the street-yard crowd tries to imitate his moves. Everyone wants him as a spokesperson — and, like Magic and Michael Jordan, he seems to transcend race.
“Maybe it was going to Duke. Duke appeals to all types of people. Anyhow, I don’t change who I am because I’m in a white environment or a black environment.
“I’m very much for my race, but I’m also very much for the human race.”
Hill wants to be rookie of the year. He admits that now. It’s the one thing he can win, and he hungers to win the way he won in college. Yes, the first time he played against Shaq, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Jordan, he was impressed — just as the first time he took a road trip, he wanted to see all the sights. But, by season’s end, an opponent was an opponent, and a road trip meant room service and TV movies. The novelties fade. He wants what he was taught to want: success.
As for a new coach? Hill is too polite to say a word against Don Chaney. But he doesn’t rush to demand he stay. “A new coach kind of sets you back, but I can’t control it. If Don stays, fine. I’ve enjoyed playing for him. But if he leaves, well, I’m paid to do a job.”
Hill plans to buy a house here this summer. He thinks the Pistons should draft Joe Smith from Maryland. And he plans to work on his shooting and his defense.
I can only tell you this: The kid led the team in scoring and minutes, and he was a beacon of hope in this franchise’s tunnel of darkness. I think he will win rookie of the year. And after that, I think, out of kindness, we should leave him alone and let him breathe for a while.
Also, he should learn another song.
(SIDEBAR:) MAKING THE GRADE Corky Meinecke’s complete report card is on Page 5D, but here’s a sneak peek: PLAYER MIDTERM FINAL Hill A-minus A-minus Houston C-plus B-plus Dumars A-minus B
Mills B-minus C Miller Inc. D-minus